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The Curious Case of Football Contracts

 The Curious Case of Football Contracts

I’ve had it with your negative comments, I can’t take it. I quit!

Still here? Why? I quit didn’t I? Oh, that’s right I’m on one of those football contracts, the most bizarre of conventions in modern sports. Of course fixed term contracts are not unique to football but in what other profession except as an athlete are you forced to work for an employer you don’t want to?

Over the years Contracts in football have become increasingly convoluted and complicated. It initially began with a system whereby professional football players had to be registered with a particular club for a season before they could play. As the game became more popular so did the players who soon leveraged their personal appeal to sign annual contracts with a club of their choosing, giving themselves the option to sign with a new club the following season if they could get more money.

The problem with the above system was obvious, the bigger (and therefore richer) clubs could offer better contracts and would result in a system where there was a clear divide between the haves and the have nots. So in 1893 the FA implemented the ‘Retain & Transfer‘ system, where a player could only register with one club and then could not register with another without the permission of his current club. Soon clubs realised they could charge for the release of a player and thus the transfer system was born.

Since the inception of that system Football then had become a very moderate and widely accepted form of serfdom. As players can be forced into play for a club they don’t want to or be forced out of the game and a change was not implemented until 60 years and two world wars later.

The following quote from a famous footballer sums up the development:

“Our contract could bind us to a club for life. Most people called it the “slavery contract”. We had virtually no rights at all. It was often the case that the guy on the terrace not only earned more than us — though there’s nothing wrong with that — he had more freedom of movement than us. People in business or teaching were able to hand in their notice and move on. We weren’t. That was wrong.”
- George Eastham

The first successful challenge of the ‘Retain & Transfer’ system was made in 1963 as the High Court in England heard the case of Eastham V Newcastle United. In this case the player told Newcastle that at the end of his contract he no longer wanted to play for them and requested a transfer, a request that was refused. Eastham went on strike and found alternative employment because he could not play elsewhere. He eventually received his transfer but took the club (and the system) to the high court where the judge forced the Football League to change it’s system the retain element was removed but the transfer system remained.

As the game has increased it’s reach so have the governing bodies. You may have noticed that the case of Eastham above is startlingly similar to the much more famous case of Jean-Marc Bosman which changed the face of football transfers in 1995 which previously had prevented the transfer of players between European Countries on expiration of contracts forcing the player to stay in country. I won’t bore you with why (free movement of workers) just that the Bosman case rocked European football and put more power in the player’s hands who could simply sit on their hands if unhappy and wait to move anywhere in Europe at contracts end.

Of course since then UEFA has continually tried to place the power back with the clubs particularly the protection of smaller clubs from having their best youth players picked up for nothing at contracts end. However with such regulation comes bizarre irregularities whereby Dan Gosling was allowed to leave Everton for nothing despite having a better contract offered to him simply because it wasn’t in writing, this cost Everton millions and prevented Plymouth (his youth team) from gaining any sell-on money.

More recently there has been the ‘Webster Ruling’ whereby player’s themselves could buy the remainder of their contract and move clubs. The ruling was described as giving “footballers the sort of employee rights that anyone else would expect in the workplace“. However it’s use has not been as widespread as the Bosman ruling, the rumours are rife that a gentleman’s agreement exists between clubs not to exploit the ruling.

So there we have it, some of the vagaries of the Contract system laid bare, are you any wiser? I think not and the central point still remains, footballers are still tied to a club for an determined period; that is as long as a breach of contract is not made (see Adrian Mutu and Marlon King). They may have agreed to it initially but anything can happen in several years, for instance Leeds or Juventus.

Eastham’s ‘slavery’ comments has since been repeated since by the much less reputable Sepp Blatter, of course if Sepp agrees with you there must be something wrong. So what is wrong with all this complaining? The players themselves, naturally. The important thing about Eastham’s comments were that football was not a full-time job and had to be supplemented with another wage. Nowadays players complaining about ‘slavery’ need only be pointed to their bank account to sway that opinion.

Also players are not exempt from exploiting their guaranteed term as well, the most famous of these players would be Winston Bogarde whose excessive contract allowed him to earn money for basically nothing (no league appearances in his final 3 seasons).However the top levels are not representative of the entire game, many young player’s need the option to move on from their home-town clubs at the end of contracts inexpertly drawn up and signed. Or whenever your team cannot afford to pay you but because you are between ‘transfer windows’ you have no choice but to play on in the hope of payment. Think of the poor Dundee players whose jobs could disappear and they have to wait to register with another club.

Contracts are a big part of football, they usually determine the fee which is paid for a player i.e. those on a long-term deal are more expensive than those who will be leaving soon (see Niko Kranjcar’s pitiful fee) and they continue to get more convoluted leading to ugly court cases that detract from the sport as a whole. The entire Jon Obi Mikel transfer was a farce from which his career has mercifully eclipsed. In Europe the meddling of the EU will prevent wholesale changes to the system (such as the introduction of a Salary Cap).

However it is not all doom and gloom, football has managed to avoid season and reputation destroying strikes, unlike MLB whilst also avoiding the free-for-all of free agency which can be borderline shameful, unlike the NBA and ‘The Decision’. The fact still remains that sports and prominently Football exist inside a legal bubble in terms of Employment, you simply cannot say ‘I quit’ with any conviction and can be kept in employment against your wishes.

So no, I don’t quit, you aren’t rid of me that easily and look! An entire contract article that doesn’t mention Wayne Rooney.

Damnit!

Finally on a personal note, if you enjoy my writing which has included the articles hotlinked to these words and you have the disposable time then could you vote for me on part 5 at the Not 100% Football Blogger Awards. You can also follow me @kipp9 on twitter.


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